This is not new territory for the food stamp program. During the early days of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, thousands of federal “recruiters” were deployed to the black community to persuade African Americans to overcome their pride and accept food stamps. The USDA magazine reported in 1972 that, "With careful explanations . . . coupled with intensive outreach efforts, resistance from the 'too prouds' is bending.”
The USDA accomplished its mission: approximately 25% of black Americans are now enrolled in SNAP, and many of those households have been receiving food stamps for two generations. Has this improved black American health, as the USDA claims it will for Latinos? African Americans, even after three generations of food stamps, have lower life expectancies than whites (74.3 years to 78.4, respectively). While starvation is largely a thing of the past in America, blacks suffer from higher rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes than their white counterparts. Ironically, Hispanic Americans currently outlive both whites and blacks.
As Professor Gary Galles of Pepperdine University points out:
Studies find little difference between the nutritional adequacy of the diets of low- and high-income families, so that the problem is vastly overstated. Added food spending also often fails to improve nutrition, as less nutritious but more convenient pre-prepared food is substituted for healthier home-prepared food. Further, obesity is a more common problem among low-income families today than lack of food. Therefore, trying to force recipients to consume more food than they would otherwise by giving food aid instead of cash would probably do little to improve nutrition, but would worsen obesity problems.
So it is by no means clear that increased enrollment in the food stamp program will improve the health of Latinos in our country. The aggressive USDA campaign goes to the heart of the program’s mission. The federal food stamp program was begun in 1939 as a way to get rid of large agricultural surpluses that the government had purchased from farmers. Years of the Great Depression had made hunger a real danger for some Americans, particularly in cities, but the program was discontinued in 1943 when widespread unemployment and unmarketable crop surpluses were no longer issues.
Food stamps were revived in the 1960s as part of President Johnson’s Great Society, and federal recruiters were dispatched to increase enrollment in the program. This marked a decided shift in the philosophy of what enables people to actually get out of poverty. One of the elders in my church, a PhD in economics, was actually apart of evaluating the effectiveness of the early food stamps program. The problems with the program are the same today as they were then. A man with “get-up-and-go” would rather have help establishing a new business or leveraging the support he receives from the government. The American Dream was built on the idea of self-reliance: that given sufficient opportunity, anyone could succeed by hard work and determination. Despite slavery and Jim Crow, black income rose at a faster rate before Johnson’s programs than it did afterwards.
Anyone who works among the poor in America today knows the rarity of that “pride of self-reliance,” they also see the problem of generational poverty in both urban and rural America. Like crack cocaine, the government dole is very addictive. Blacks and Latinos need policies that will empower them, not federal recruiters to lure them into greater dependence. And at a time of unprecedented deficits—when our government needs to both raise revenues and cut spending—we need SNAP to enroll only those truly in need.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.